Like many racers, Willy T. Ribbs’ ultimate motorsport goal was Formula 1, but the record-setting Black driver only got as far as one test behind the wheel of a Brabham in 1986. And while that test never led to further F1 opportunities for Ribbs, it was an incredible moment for motorsport — one that helped pave the way for a future dominated by Lewis Hamilton.
While Ribbs recounted the story of his first F1 test in both F1's Beyond the Grid podcast and in his documentary Uppity, his growing involvement in F1 warrants a look back at his roots. See, Ribbs competed in just about everything, from IndyCar to NASCAR. He was a star in Trans Am racing who had dreams of going international — and who had, in fact, found his racing roots in Europe. And after a 1985 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Bernie Ecclestone — who Ribbs still calls “Uncle Bernie” — decided Ribbs needed a shot at F1.
According to Ribbs, Ecclestone had spotted Ribbs’ talent way back in the American racer’s Formula Ford days, but a test just never quite happened until Ribbs had found his footing in America. It wasn’t until 1986, when Ecclestone met with Don King at the Detroit Grand Prix, that the idea of a test for Ribbs came to fruition.
It was a full-on Formula 1 test with a large grid — including Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet, the latter of whom gave Ribbs advice on how to drive the BMW turbo — race director Charlie Whiting, and team owners like Ecclestone.
Ribbs said that it was actually fairly easy to adapt to the power the car put out. What he struggled with was the braking.
“I had never driven anything like it,” he said. “Convincing yourself you can drive it down deep into that corner was the hardest part.”
Unfortunately, rain in the early part of the session meant Ribbs didn’t get a full test, so he really only had a short period of time to familiarize himself with the car and set a competitive time. Despite that, he felt comfortable — while he wasn’t fastest in the session, he was solidly mid-pack and exceeded the goalpost set for him by Ecclestone and Herbie Blash.
That was, though, the only test Ribbs had. At that point, Ecclestone was making the transition from team ownership to running the entirety of the F1 circus, and it was primarily Ecclestone’s insistence that earned Ribbs a test.
You can listen to the full story from Willy T. Ribbs himself on the F1: Beyond the Grid podcast. It’s worth a listen — no one tells a story better than Willy T. himself.